A historical novel based on the assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1881. The assassination was carried out by members of Narodnaya Volya (The People’s Will), one of the world’s first terrorist organisations.
Andrew Williams explores the motives and the methods of the terrorists, and the use of violence as a political tool — a tool that was employed both by the terrorists and by the secret police who tried to catch them.
The story of The People’s Will is intertwined with the love story of an English doctor, Frederick Hadfield, who falls in love with one of the terrorists, and because of his association with her comes under suspicion by the secret police.
Though they were sometimes called “Nihilists”, the political reforms that The People’s Will wanted were rather mild liberal ones: representative government, freedom of speech, and things like that. In that respect the assassination was counter-productive, as the Tsar was about to introduce some of those reforms when he was killed, and the assassination led to increased state repression.
There are some parallels with South African history too.
Tsar Alexander II was a reformer, and one of the features of reform is that increases the demand for reform. Those who want reform demand that the pace of reform be speeded up, and so reform tends to encourage revolution. It leads me to wonder what would have happened in South Africa if F.W. de Klerk had been assassinated in January 1990, just before he announced his reforms, which included the unbanning of opposition parties and the release of political prisoners. It might have led to a period of even worse repression, as the assassination of Alexander II did in Russia.
I also compare The People’s Will with the African Resistance Movement, a group of South Africans from the privileged classes who resorted to using violence to bring about political reforms. The difference is that they weren’t dedicated terrorists, and lacked the dedication of the hard-crore revolutionaries of The People’s Will.
The book thus raises questions about the use of violence and terrorism to achieve political reform. It doesn’t give answers, though in this case history itself gave the answer.